Image: Boston of the future
Follies of Science
While there have been remarkable innovations in mass transit, lighter-than-air vehicles were not among them.
By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 10/11/2006 8:14:57 PM ET 2006-10-12T00:14:57

Some predictions about the future remain forever etched in history: Lord Kelvin’s 1895 declaration that “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” or Digital Equipment Corp. head Ken Olson’s 1977 statement that “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”  But far more predictions and visions of the future are forgotten long before the future actually happens.  

Not, however, in the world of two brothers, Eric and Jonathan Dregni, whose excellent new book “Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future” (Speck Press, $19) is a lavish visual compendium of art work, advertisements, cartoons, magazine covers and government documents, all depicting just how wonderful, or occasionally terrifying, the future will be. Virtually all of the visions, of course, are also dead wrong. 

Probably the scariest parts of the book involve glowing testimonials for materials that have turned out to be public health disasters. A big mid-century magazine advertisement extols the use of lead (“the answer to the old alchemist’s dream”) throughout homes, noting that “interior walls are beautified with white-lead paint” and that “lead is in the glaze of the chinaware and that of the bathtub and sink.” 

A similar ad from the same era promotes “Amazing Asbestos!” that can be used for “roofs and walls and decorative interiors” and which “in fact grows tougher with age.” Right — especially when you’re trying to get rid of it. And a truly amazing advertisement sells Vita Radium Suppositories (High Strength): radioactive suppositories intended for daily use that “are absorbed by the walls of the colon” so that “every tissue, every organ of the body is bombarded by its health-giving electric atoms.”

Follies of ScienceElectric atoms? Nothing in the entire 20th century exceeded the hyperbolic hopes for the “friendly atom.”  One glossy ad shows a tiny chunk of fuel lighting up Chicago’s entire skyline.  Atomic cars were a foregone conclusion: shortly after World War II Popular Mechanics magazine predicted cars that “could be driven 5,000,000 miles without refueling.”  And as late as 1958 Ford unveiled a model of the Ford Nucleon, which carried a miniature nuclear reactor in the trunk; with at least one nod to reality the engineers positioned both axles toward the rear because of the likely immense weight of the reactor.

Another hope that has been lost to history was “atomic farming,” in which radioactive cobalt irradiating plants in the field might lead to larger crop yields. And of course, there was the atomic airplane — an airborne nuclear reactor with a cruising speed of 10,000 miles an hour — that would get you to Los Angeles several hours earlier than when you left New York. No word, though on what might happen to Los Angeles in case the landing fails. 

Another popular tendency was a sort of gleeful mix-and-match approach to the future: taking two inventions and gluing them together.  One example: an enormous aircraft whose fuselage is actually a full-sized detachable passenger bus, so that when the plane lands, the travelers can simply continue on a road trip without ever having to exit the airplane. Another was an ingenious set of motorized snow skis that had flat surfaces on one side and miniature tank treads on the other.  After a descent, the skier simply flipped the skis over, fired up the forty-seven pound motor (worn on his back) that powered the treads, and motored back uphill for another run.

And of course, no book about future visions would be complete without man’s best friend (and worst enemy) the robot. Both good and bad robots are in evidence in “Follies of Science” and curiously, in a number of the images from popular fiction, the bad robots seem to be intent on stealing human women — generally blonde and buxom — from their defeated male companions. There’s no clear indication of what the evil robots plan to do with the plundered pulchritude, but it looks pretty ominous. The friendly robots, on the other hand, are usually seen as gentle butlers, or sometimes pets — and two images even show wide-eyed, frightened robots being pursued by stern uniformed humans up to no good. Virtually all of the robots, good and bad, are essentially humanoid and bipedal, with boxy or cylindrical silver bodies—with absolutely no foreshadowing of the Roombas that are in fact many consumers’ first meeting with a real robot.

By the end of “Follies of Science,” any modern technologist is bound to start wondering: Are our current predictions about the future any smarter than the endless parade of goofiness and gullibility that “Follies of Science” gleefully enumerates?  Maybe those concerns about the health implications of nano-materials or genetically-engineered food aren’t quite as unwarranted as the manufacturers would have us think.  And perhaps the grand expectations of how genetic technology will improve humankind and extend our lives by decades aren’t nearly as imminent — or likely — as popular books and articles predict. 

But of course we know far more about science than they did 50 years ago, don’t we? Yes — in just the same way that the hapless futurists in “Follies of Science” knew far more about science than did their counterparts at the turn of the last century.

In other words, each generation seems to inherit not only new knowledge but also new ignorance. Thus far, our generation has been supremely confident about our new knowledge.  The really interesting question that remains is the exact nature of our ignorance. 

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